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Janwillem van de Wetering
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The Punisher MAX, Vol. 5: The Slavers - Leandro Fernández, Garth Ennis

Punisher intercedes, on the fateful night that he sees a young, hysterical woman taking potshots at a bunch of scumbags who--once she targets them--decide she's fair game for physical assault before they kill her. Clearly, there's a history between these people, who don't play well with others.


So, after Castle helps resolve the situation and gets a chance to chat with the desperate, lost woman--Viorica--he hears such tales of a local human-trafficking ring where women are bought and sold as sex slaves by a group of men primarily from Albania and elsewhere in the Balkans, but expanding, he of course feels he has to bring things to a screeching halt.


This was my intro to how things can get in the Marvel "MAX" line. There are no limits to the bad language--think of the three most offensive words in the English language for you personally, and expect to see them in even just this one story--and the violence and gore level is off the charts--whatever the worst image is from the least inhibited Saw film, or whatever. The point of this story, 'The Slavers', is to get Frank Castle to realize that he is facing unbreakable, coldest-of-the-cold, truly brutal human beings...which he does, pretty early on, and which causes him to go beyond his own normal limits when interrogating, infiltrating, and suppressing. It's a war, fought with the same tactics on both sides. Two of Punisher's juiciest targets are an old man, and the woman who helps run the business and who believes all the women to be sold must be raped (there are no rape scenes in this graphic novel, but obviously this story comes with its own blanket rape-trigger warning) and psychically destroyed before they are sold into slavery....an old man, and a woman, two of the characters who get some of the worst Punishment, when all is said and done. Again, most of what is said and done is brutal, but I think I can stop emphasizing that, by now, right?


There are some cops roped into the mess before too long, but at best, we have the ones who lie when asked to by their superiors, as regards being "attacked and beaten" by Castle, as part of a new police effort to finally de-Punisherize New York. At worst--well, no coincidence that the biggest law-enforcement effort to end the Punisher comes when he goes after connected criminals. A social worker who has dedicated her life and profession to helping any women who manage to escape this hell, and knows that the women are just as doomed if they are deported (so what the hell is to be done?) is the only other really admirable character in the story besides Viorica, and even the social worker with her heart in the right place lives with the guilt of a wrong decision affecting a baby's future (ie. odds of survival). Good thing to come from that: her guilt means she will help the Punisher temporarily.


Go into this story knowing the Punisher does things that, at times, seem to outdo the nastiness of the villains he has chosen to kill. Virtually everybody behaving badly, as it were. But he does it to free many women from lives of unendurable torment from men who don't give it a second thought. I love this story, despite the overall bleakness tied to the facts and statistics put forth in some of the dialogue coupled with the realization that in the real world this stuff is going on as I write this...with no Punisher. Despite the gut-wrenching aspects of the story, it is the Punisher as he was always meant to be--deciding there are literally no rules fighting the worst of the worst; he does to them what they are willing to do to anybody. The most intense words and images around.